As if crossing the country for a tournament loaded with stiff competition over the holiday weekend wasn’t tough enough, West Virginia doesn’t know when star Devin Ebanks will return to the court.
The eighth-ranked Mountaineers are preparing to play their third straight game without Ebanks on Thursday when they face Long Beach State in the opening round of the 76 Classic in Anaheim, Calif.
Shortly after defeating The Citadel 69-50 on Tuesday, West Virginia (2-0) boarded a plane for Southern California for this tournament. The winner of this game faces either No. 19 Clemson or Texas A&M on Friday, while 12th-ranked Butler, No. 22 Minnesota, UCLA and Portland round out the field.
Making it to Sunday’s championship game won’t be easy for the Mountaineers, especially if Ebanks isn’t available.
Ebanks, who made the Big East all-rookie team last season while averaging 10.5 points and a team-high 7.8 rebounds in 34 starts, sat out a season-opening 83-60 win over Loyola (Md.) on Nov. 15 for what coach Bob Huggins called undisclosed personal issues.
Ebanks dressed for Tuesday’s game but did not play, and Huggins said the 6-foot-9 forward will accompany the team to California but doesn’t know if he’ll see playing time.
“I understand you all have a job to do,” Huggins said. “You also have to understand that if it was your kid, you don’t want your kid’s business all over the newspaper, radio and TV because it isn’t anybody’s business. My responsibility is to those kids.”
Without Ebanks in the lineup, West Virginia had trouble establishing a presence in the paint against The Citadel, as each team finished with 30 rebounds.
“We should have come out and been sharper than we were,” said forward Kevin Jones, who had 11 points and eight rebounds. “We’re going to look back at this game as just another stepping stone. We want to get better throughout the season and get ready for play in March.”
While it’s unknown when Ebanks will return, John Flowers came off the bench Tuesday after injuring his foot in the opener. The reserve forward finished with a team-high 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting in 22 minutes.
“If John Flowers gives me that kind of energy, John’s going to play a lot of minutes,” Huggins said.
Flowers helped pick up the offense against the Bulldogs while forward Da’Sean Butler was limited to nine points after scoring 26 in the opener.
This will be the first meeting between West Virginia and Long Beach State, the preseason pick to win the Big West.
The 49ers (3-1) bounced back from last Thursday’s 82-62 loss to then-unranked Notre Dame with an 81-69 victory over Wisconsin-Green Bay on Saturday.
Leading scorer Larry Anderson finished with 17 points and Stephan Gilling scored a season-high 22 after combining for four points on 1-of-11 shooting in his previous two games.
“I think it was a great step in the right direction,” coach Dan Monson told the school’s official Web site.
The 49ers are off to their best start since the 1996-97 team also opened 3-1, but it could be tough to keep it going.
Long Beach State dropped both games against Top 25 opponents last season and has lost 13 in a row to ranked foes since defeating then-No. 25 New Mexico State 84-83 on Feb. 24, 1994.